A timely perspective on bay


Impact: Events from ages past continue to shape the region.

On The Bay

January 16, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

FIELD NOTES from the bay's greatest river: Time.

By its girth, the aged red oak had flourished on the creek's tidal edge for a few centuries. Another hundred or so years of senescence and finally it stood leafless, limbless save for a single crag.

And now came a majestic eagle, southbound for the winter, alighting briefly on this perfect perch, nearly half a millennium in the preparation.

At least that is how it pleased a lone paddler, idling in the sun-soaked lee of a chill autumn wind, to imagine the moment.

All those seasons of growing, greening, enduring, of sheltering songbirds, raining acorns on deer and squirrel and wild turkey, cleansing air, filtering rainfall, shading minnows among its roots, weathering to an ancient nub.

All was prelude, making ready a few moments' respite in the lordly raptor's annual transit. Centuries distilled to a single, shining droplet in time's flow.

The eneagled oak glowed in the long slants of late sun. Raptor and rapture - any wonder they spring from the same root?

Another autumn, another bay river, Virginia's Mattaponi. We are paddling with the tide to make a luncheon appointment - no time to waste, despite the fact it was scheduled 35 million years ago, when a rock from space collided with present-day Cape Charles, Va.

An otherworldly glow heralded its coming, followed by a blinding flash, then a searing blast 100 times bigger than all Earth's nuclear arsenals going off at once.

The impact bludgeoned a crater into bedrock more than a mile deep and 50 miles across. The energy it released vaporized most life between present-day Charleston and Boston.

When the meteor struck - the sixth-largest ever to collide with Earth - Chesapeake Bay did not exist. Tropical seas, 600 feet deep over Norfolk, lapped at rainforests that greened the slopes of the Appalachians.

But in very real ways, the bay region is still living and coping today with the impact of that frightful blow.

Travelers of U.S. 13 on Virginia's flounder-flat Eastern Shore between Kiptopeke and Painter still see a sharp rise in the landscape - about 15 feet - to the highway's west. It traces the old rim of the meteor crater.

The crater is buried now beneath thousands of feet of younger rock and sediment, as well as the shallow waters of the Chesapeake, which formed 10,000 years ago as the last Ice Age melted away.

But the blast-fractured underlayment of tidewater Virginia cities inside the old crater rim is still settling.

The Norfolk-Hampton Roads region thus has one of the world's highest rates of effective sea level rise (land subsidence plus rising water). It is an imminent threat to thousands of acres of precious bay wetlands and to low-lying communities.

Similarly, the mouth of the modern Chesapeake is where it is because of the bowl-shaped depression left by the ancient meteor. The flows from bay rivers tended to accumulate in the depression as the seas rose, forming today's bay.

This brings me to our luncheon engagement, on a high, broad bank of lawn and towering trees overlooking the Mattaponi, at the home of Bob and Dori Chappell.

They wanted to enlist our band of kayakers, which included scientists and officials of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in defense of the river.

The immediate issue was a threat to the river's shad. The Mattaponi has one of the bay's few remaining healthy runs, exciting to both the fisherman and the palate.

Shad are, of course, more than sporty and toothsome. Their annual journeys up bay rivers as far as Cooperstown, N.Y., and Charlottesville and Lynchburg in Virginia, wove together the bay's watershed, from ocean to mountain foothills.

It is a vital connection between nature and humans of the watershed, nearly lost to overfishing and pollution, that we're only slowly beginning to restore.

And now on the one river that still had its shad, the city of Newport News was on the brink of extending a pipeline north to draw millions of gallons a day of Mattaponi water to fill a giant reservoir to slake the growing thirst of booming southeastern Virginia suburbs.

Opponents such as the Chappels said it would devastate shad runs - and flood nearly 500 acres of valuable wetlands - all to fuel more irresponsible sprawl development.

It all began with the meteor. The blast 35 million years ago collapsed the normal drinking water aquifers beneath a 200-square-mile region that includes the megalopolis around Norfolk and Newport News.

In their place it left only undrinkable hyper-saline water - thus the region's desperate search for drinking water to keep growing.

Lunch went well. The efforts of Virginia citizens, including the native Americans who run their own shad hatchery on the Mattaponi, and groups like the Bay Foundation beat back the reservoir - for now.

I doubt we've heard the last from the meteor. Geologists think the superheated blast left a huge "meltsheet" of concentrated, valuable ores beneath the lower bay region. Someday we'll surely see attempts to mine it - another issue for another time.

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